My Pandemic Diary, Entry #77

Pita Bread Loaves

My Pandemic Diary, Entry #77

Hello Fellow City Cooks,

Greetings and I hope all are well. It’s a beautiful Monday in New York City, not quite as gorgeous as yesterday, but almost.

Today is also the day after Flag Day which commemorates the adoption of our red, white and blue by the Second Continental Congress in 1777. Patriotism can take many forms, but some are more than symbolic, as when we demand changes that are essential if we the people are to have and keep this more perfect union. I admire and support the patriots who for weeks have gathered and marched in our streets, empowered by Amendment I to our Constitution that protects "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Amen to those who assemble for the sake of us all.

Since I wrote my last entry to this diary a week ago, Governor Cuomo opened the City with Phase One. This means about 400,000 more people can go to work, and with the right conditions, both construction and manufacturing can begin again. It was obvious that the message was received because Tuesday morning, on the nose of 8:00 am, I heard jackhammers for the first time in three months. I am sure the birds were pissed. I know I was.

Our Governor is also pissed, not for the construction noise but for the reckless and risky behavior of New Yorkers, especially at night and especially surrounding bars and restaurants (no masks, no distance, the usual). To my eyes as I walk my neighborhood -- admittedly, only during the day -- New Yorkers are being very compliant and polite. But it's not surprising that there's a huge pent-up appetite to let loose and get close. We'll see what our Governor can do to herd in human behavior, especially if that behavior is dumb and selfish.

Nearly every time I mention to anyone who doesn't live here that manufacturing is again open in NYC, I get a puzzled response. Manufacturing? In NYC? “We’re a big place with five boroughs and there are factories in each of them,” I always say. Then I invariably hear, “But not in Manhattan.” Even with Project Runway, folks forget about our renowned Garment District on Manhattan's west side. It's not as big as it used to be, but our factories are proof that all our clothes aren't fast fashion crap made in China.

Despite our city's sway, it can be surprising what folks think goes on – or doesn’t – here. I read an interview a few years ago with a young school band member who had come to New York to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She was from Odessa, Texas and not only hadn’t been to NYC before, this was also her first time out of Texas. While sharing her excitement about her visit, she exclaimed to her interviewer, “Do you know that there are children who live in New York City? Children!” As if only criminals, cops, celebrities and cab drivers lived in all those buildings. Ah, how travel can enlighten.

Indeed, New York City has both children and factories, although as of this week, only the factories are getting back to normal. The children are still at home.  And so am I.

Nothing has yet changed for Mark and me. We had already decided to be cautious, to watch what happens, and resist being the first to do anything. That decision became resolve after seeing the number of new Covid cases rising in other parts of the country and we worry about how the daily demonstrations may boost those numbers. However, as we monitor the state of things, we hope that New York's humbling low numbers will afford us some freedom and courage, at least enough to catch up with a few things.

Mark and I each have made what used to be called routine dentist and doctor appointments and at some point, we hope to get haircuts. We’ve both received our absentee ballots for New York State’s June 23rd primary election, and good that we did after seeing the mess in Georgia this past week (not that Governor Cuomo would stand for such chaos). And I’m working on my re-stocking list (pantry, cleaning supplies, batteries, stamps, meds, etc.) with the thought that I’d work my way through it over the summer so to be ready by late-September in case it’s prudent for us to lock-down again.

Otherwise life goes on. Housework, laundry, conjugating French verbs, paperwork, taking walks, writing, reading, calls with friends and family, making dinner. Having given up writing this diary every day, I’ve received the gift of time and have been able to do some things I had otherwise neglected, some meaningful, most not, but still things that either need to get done or I have simply wanted to do. This included finally washing my winter sweaters, cleaning the lint from the compressor in our dryer (a messy chore), and polishing my few pieces of silver. It’s always interesting to me how taking care of domesticity can help you feel more in control of your life.

Cooking and Groceries

Another thing that hasn’t changed is cooking dinner every night. Here are some things I made this past week.

I think I've written before that one of our favorite meals is a cutlet (or schnitzel or tonkatsu) with a big salad. I make mine with whatever meat I have which is usually chicken (boneless thigh) or pork (boneless loin chop) although I’ve also made them with lamb (I pound out a lamb steak, cut from the leg). Ina Garten’s recipe showcases the technique using boneless chicken breasts. You can prep the cutlets hours in advance, refrigerate until you’re ready for dinner, and then sauté just before serving.   

On Tuesday I was feeling more ambitious and wanted to make something new and found a recipe by David Tanis for Spicy Lamb Meatballs with Chickpeas that was really excellent.     

I knew I had ground lamb in the freezer, a bag of dried chickpeas, and all the spices that gave this dish really wonderful flavor including cumin, red pepper flakes, coriander, cinnamon and saffron. I held back a bit on the spice quantities, and shouldn’t have; in my experience, Tanis has a sure hand when it comes to seasonings and next time, I’ll trust what he says. I also found the recipe's comment section useful, especially those that noted that the rice that is used as the meatball binding agent (there are no breadcrumbs or egg) can be under-cooked in the finished meatballs so I par-cooked the rice before adding it to the raw ground lamb and the result was perfect. The delicious tomato-based sauce, or gravy as Tanis called it, was fragrant with a spicy kick, and I made some plain couscous to help mop it up. The only point he missed on was the estimated time to make the dish. The recipe noted one hour; I know it always takes me longer to make something the first time, but this took a bit over two hours from start to finish. Still it was well worth it.

If you’re still hesitant to make dry chickpeas instead of using canned ones, InspiredTaste.net has an excellent article, complete with photos and a video, that explains everything. I appreciated its instructions for quick-cooking the chickpeas instead of having to do an overnight soaking. 

On Wednesday we had mostly leftovers for dinner, including meatballs and sauce from the night before, plus I made a salad. To add to the meal, I baked pita bread, which I hadn’t done in years. I was happy enough with how they turned out but next time I will replace some of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat, and I will make each pita a bit smaller but thicker as I think that will encourage better puffing. Before making the pitas, I had looked at a lot of videos and recipes on YouTube and most were very similar, but I primarily followed this one because I wanted to cook the pitas in a cast iron pan and not in a 500°F oven (it was a hot and humid day). 

If you make pita bread and end up with stale leftover loaves, they can be the essential ingredient in a popular and great-for-the-summer Middle Eastern salad called a fattoush salad. Here's a recipe that also explains some of its cultural culinary history, plus this blog called The Mediterranean Dish is very appealing.

Last week I had scored a bag of Bob’s Red Mill dark rye flour (yay!) and I wanted to set up a batch of rye bread dough on Saturday night to bake on Sunday afternoon, but I also wanted to make it with whey instead of water because I've learned that whey makes a big flavor difference. So Saturday I made some ricotta, as much to get the whey as the creamy curds but it still left me looking for something to do with my two cups of freshly made ricotta. I took inspiration from an article about Dorie Greenspan hosting a Parisian dinner party at which she served roasted red peppers topped with lemon ricotta. It's easy to make by simply adding lemon zest and a bit of freshly squeezed lemon juice and a little olive oil to the home-made or store-bought ricotta. Spoon that on room temperature (or even still slightly warm) fat slices of red peppers that you first roast at 425°F until charred, then peel off the skin. The combination of the flavors, textures, and colors was gorgeous. 

Pandemic Tips

I came upon a few other things this week that I wanted to pass along. 

We can't easily fly there yet (even if you wanted to) but Europe is opening up. I've seen the articles about Romans getting to explore their city and great art without the tourist crowds and now Paris is beginning to open. The Musée D'Orsay opens on June 23 and l'Orangerie on June 22. Masks (les masques!) and social distancing (la distanciation physique!) are mandatory.

Mark and I began to watch a new Netflix series called “The English Game.” I’m such a laggard on all things television and streaming that I’m probably the last person to know about this Julian Fellows production, but just in case it’s also new to you, too, this series is a drama about the early days of soccer but is also about class and inequality and so far, it’s really well acted and produced. (Downton Abbey's theme music is my phone’s ring tone so I may be biased.)

Author and historian Jill Lepore teaches at Harvard and is also a staff writer for The New Yorker and I’ve always appreciated the way she can make history so accessible and relevant. She has recently launched a new podcast called The Last Archive. It’s available in the usual places. Here is an interview with her in which she explains what the podcast is about.

Season one of The Last Archive focused on Truth. Season two will be about Doubt. What could be more timely.

Stay safe, stay engaged, and have a nice dinner.

Kate McDonough

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